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Donnacha DENNEHY (b. 1970)
Crane (2008/9) [17:37]
O (2001/2) [10:11]
The Vandal (2000) [9:12]
Hive (2005) [16:35]
Chamber Choir Ireland
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Gavin Maloney
rec. National Concert Hall, Dublin, October 2009, April and November 2010
RTÉ LYRIC FM CD145 [53:35]

Now in his mid-forties Donnacha Dennehy already has a sizeable output to his credit and a far from negligible discography. This recent release is the third CD entirely devoted to his often thought-provoking music. Some of his instrumental pieces, works for ensemble and his Violin Concerto Elastic Harmonic (2005) are available on NMC D133. His complex, though quite beautiful Grá agus Bás (singer and ensemble – 2007) - one of his finest achievements so far - and the short cycle he composed for Dawn Upshaw, That the Night Come (2010) are available on Nonesuch 7559-79772-7.

The four orchestral works recorded here span some ten years of his composing life — from 2000 up to 2009 — and in spite of some differences these display a number of characteristics that one encounters in Dennehy's music. Its most striking feature is its raw energy. It seems unafraid of the very din it can produce. His music, however, is never gratuitously aggressive and may also tease some calmer moments out of the everyday turmoil. The finest example of this is to be heard in the most recent work recorded here Crane. This had a somewhat curious genesis. It was conceived as a ballet with live orchestra and the choreographed movement of cranes located at various building sites across Dublin. However, the project fell through for various reasons that may be guessed quite easily. The basic idea, however, remained and Dennehy went on with the piece as a purely orchestral work. He nevertheless visited some building sites and had the opportunity to chat with a crane operator who told him that once he had ascended his ladders and was installed in his seat high in the air, he felt he could leave the cares of the world behind him. This found its way into the beautifully moving epilogue of the work but the first part of the piece brims with powerfully aggressive music - a sort of updated Mossolov - which shows Dennehy to be a master of the orchestra. This mastery actually comes through in all the works recorded here. The music is often quite brightly scored and articulated on machine-like rhythms. It moves forward with confidence.

Both O (2001/2) and The Vandal (2000), though composed close to each other, differ greatly. O was commissioned by Trinity College Dublin in memory of the composer Brian Boydell who was Professor of Music there for many decades. It is hard to imagine Dennehy writing an “in memoriam” when one knows the kind of music he had composed until then. The overall mood is rather ambiguous though a feeling of sadness prevails. This impression is emphasised through repeated gestures and unsettling up- and downward glissandi. The music nevertheless tends to build to a climax that “unexpectedly dissipates” and the piece ends inconclusively in mid-air. The Vandal is, on the whole, more energetic, at times violent but there's also some irony in the mix. I rather like the way the composer described his working method then as “creating beautiful objects only in order to throw them against the wall to watch what way they smash”. This may sound somewhat iconoclastic but his writing is refreshingly free of prejudice and abounds in energy and fine moments of orchestral craft. It is particularly amusing to hear how the music moves after a few seconds of the almost benign and innocent to be brutally torn apart by the brass. For the most part of this short work, the music actually subverts fragments in very unexpected ways. Some of the fragments are very beautiful but they never last very long.

The final work recorded here is Hive for chamber choir and orchestra. Although in one single span the piece actually falls into two parts separated by a bridge passage of sorts. The first part sets an excerpt from Byron's Don Juan in which the poet expresses the impact of sighting London and another from Thomas Beames' The Rookeries of London. This the composer describes as an “hysterical, almost racist” account of the Irish community in the slum life of London: “They (the Irish) bring their bad habits with them, and leave their virtues behind”. The first part is brightly scored and alternates episodes of varying character and musical density but ultimately develops towards the interlude. Then the second part opens forcefully, hectically, and the composer relies on a number of ways to render the words — spoken, declaimed freely and the like — to create a formidable impression of chaos as reflected in Beames' words. Hive is a splendid work and is the real gem here: not instantly accessible but eventually quite rewarding.

Dennehy's music may not be easy at first but it ultimately convinces by its sheer expressive strength. Its reliance on repetition may at times remind one of John Adams or Louis Andriessen rather than the well-behaved minimalism of Steve Reich. On repeated hearings it emerges as Dennehy's own.

Hubert Culot


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